The West, Part III

In Rereading the Sophists (1998), Jurratt attempts to reveal the field’s Aristotelian orientation and offer an alternative. This alternative is, instead of a move away from classical Greece as the locus of rhetorical history, Jurratt works to legitimize the Sophists as figures who presented rich contributions to the rhetorical tradition. Our views of the Sophists have been filtered through the terministic screen (borrowing a term from Burke this week) of Aristotelian influence. According to Jurratt, the philosophic tradition has sustained a prejudice against mythos, and Aristotle excluded pathos in persuasive situations from science: “[…] Sophists’s efforts remain colored by the “irrationality” of mythic structure and effect” (Jurratt, xxiii). While Jurratt’s work is absolutely needed – and if the outcome of rereading the sophists is to give more voice to minority students in rhetoric and composition – I am discouraged by how classical Greece is still idolized as not just a site, but the site of legitimate rhetorical history. Culturally, this may place even more thrust on the canons as a valuable and unquestioned frame for understanding rhetoric.

As the sophists were teachers of young male statesmen in Greece and later Rome, this encourages me to investigate the way heirarchy and order is presented through the texts I read this week. And, as I read, it became apparent that not only are some writers providing categories and structure (i.e., Freud and Burke), but others present an argument for the abolishment of a structure–only for the establishment of a new heirarchy (Marx & Engels). To me, Aristotle remains heavily influential in these readings, and I claim that the obsession of providing order, classification, and structure to such diverse contexts may indicate an incessant impulse to maintain power in a world of increasing technological advancement and complexity.

In 1848, the Communist Manifesto has since been revered as one of the world’s most influential political manuscripts. While I hadn’t read the Manifesto prior to this week, I’ve absolutely been exposed to Marxist ideologies, terms, and concepts; reading this text has helped me see the major concepts that underlie this piece. To Marx and Engels, the order of capitalism is flawed, and the source of that flaw is the constant struggle of class (between the proletariat and the bourgeois).

In brief, the proletarians will eventually rise to power in this class struggle through riots or creation of unions, but this process of rising to power is cyclical, and it can only be remedied by Marx an Engels’ brand of order: communism. While this explanation may be too reductive to do the document justice, I’m most interested in its influence on class hierarchy and language. If all language is marked by struggle, a hierarchy is also present. Language can serve as capital to gain power, and it may also be used as an instrument to achieve cultural capital. The Manifestois well written and persuasive, yet to me, hierarchies are amplified through the document. And, despite their solution to the problem of capitalism, the question of power is saturated throughout the piece and does not seem to be addressed. If we again ask the question: what world does this text help create? I respond that it legitimizes and affirms the concepts of class and hierarchy, extending those terms to a new form of political order instead of abolishing them. It has influenced way we understand and engage in the idea of order, and that power and language is instrumental in establishing that order.

I am interested in Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) as it serves as an authoritative text that relies on more conjecture than scientific evidence. It marks Freud’s move from his previous theory focused on sexual instinct (eros or libido) to one that presents the development of a theory of drives that include death drives (thanatos). To Freud, humans struggle between these two opposing drives. I found the concept of repetition compulsion to be interesting, which is marked as “a first phase, the most varied manifestations of repetition, considered as their irreducible quality, are attributed to the essence of drives.” Overall, this piece is a fascinating bit of speculation used skillfully, in turn making it a rhetorically effective text. Through the movement of one instinct (eros) to two contrasting drives of struggle (eros and thanatos), the text illustrates a shift of psychoanalysis toward a more structural and orderly understanding of the human mind.

Reading Burke’s Language as Symbolic Action (1966) was an interesting experience, and at first I found it a bit more difficult to relate his method to the other articles this week. That is, until I found this quote:

“Man is the symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-misusing) animal, inventor of the negative (or moralized by the negative), separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making, goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by the sense of order), and rotten with perfection.”

As I read this comment, I was struck by his observance that all language is invented and “negatives” do not exist in nature. This would also mean that hierarchy and order are also invented concepts. Burke seems to be submitting to the idea of order as he presents the pentad, a heuristic for understanding motive (and I also might argue, understanding order from chaos). His views of technology as deceptive and destructive also suggests his discomfort with complexity of a changing, increasingly technologically advanced world—and a desire for order in that chaos.

Reading Cixous’ The Laugh of the Medusa (1976) and Derrida’s Signature, Event, Context led to a moment of realization for me. Both writers sought, from clearly different perspectives and motives, to shift our conceptions of hierarchy that have permeated and constructed the order of society. This work of shifting, has incredible consequences for shifting the culture and thought that centuries of order have produced. To Cixous: “Nearly the entire history of writing is confounded with the history of reason, of which it is at once the effect, the support, and one of the privileged alibis. It has been one with the phallocentric tradition. It is indeed that same self-admiring, self-stimulating, self-congratulatory phallocentrism” (Cixous 879). The power of who can write history must then be shifted to those whose voices have been suppressed in the name of maintaining order for privileged.